The aim and practice of Yoga: Yoga mental discipline and physical exercises combined
In one form or another Yoga, mental discipline and physical exercises combined, has been in vogue in different parts of the earth from time immemorial, forming a part—sometimes a repellent part—of primitive cults and creeds. Some of the unsavoury practices continue to this day, incorporated into obscene rituals and ceremonies of some Yoga cults. In the light of these facts it is a mistake to treat Yoga as an independent system of exercises devised exclusively to bestow peace of mind or access to the occult world on those who practice it. But rather, it should be taken as a valuable system of tried religious practices, collected and coordinated, designed to form a much-needed adjunct to any religion of mankind for lending corroboration to the possibility of spiritual experience.
The modern tendency to divide Yoga into several different distinct and separate types, such as Karma-Yoga, Jnana-Yoga, Dhyana-Yoga, Mantra-Yoga, and the like, is based on an incorrect appraisal of the circumstances that led to the development of this science and an incorrect knowledge of its history.
In the earliest religious literature of
no such distinction is made. It is true there must have always existed numerous schools of spiritual culture to cater to the needs of men of different tastes, different religious beliefs, different intellectual levels, and at different stages of moral development; and these schools, as is natural and as happens even now, must have designated their systems differently to invest them with importance and to attract disciples. India
But that difference extended only to the pattern of methods used and not to the fundamental concept of Yoga.
In the Bhagavad-Gita the enumeration of several forms of Yoga is an attempt at synthesis and every form has been praised.
This is also clear from the reference made to the identity of sankhya and Yoga. In the Gita, from first to last, Yoga is treated as a powerful means toward emancipation, as an integral and essential part of man’s religious zeal. The same view is taken in other well-known religious books of the Hindus. In the course of time the various methods of Yoga were also incorporated into the sacred books of Buddhists and penetrated to
Tibet, China, Japan, and other places in the Far East. The diverse forms of Yoga, in vogue in from very early times, embrace nearly all the methods adopted by people in different epochs and of different climes from the crude, primitive attempts made to gain supernatural power of healing, exorcism, black magic, prophecy, and the like to the subsequent supreme endeavour of spiritual illumination. Broadly defined the term Yoga can be applied to any systematic effort made by man to effect the assuagement of spiritual thirst by the use of suitable psychosomatic exercises out of the vast inventory of methods mentioned in Yoga texts and other religious documents. India
The main thing to be kept in mind is that Yoga is not an accidentally discovered royal road to spiritual experience nor the secret treasure house of some magically effective methods for gaining uncanny psychical powers. In its diverse forms it is in reality the conglomeration of almost all the methods for the attainment of supernormal states of consciousness devised by the religious zeal of man. In other words, Yoga, in the real sense of the term and in the light of the purpose for which it is employed, is to the supersensory or spiritual part of man what empirical science is to his visible or physical part. Yoga provides methods for the attestation of spiritual truths, but the laboratory is the man himself. In this sublime enterprise he has to experiment upon himself to know the real facts about his own existence, or about the entity who never reveals his own nature to him from birth to the last day of his pilgrimage on earth, and keeps him perpetually mystified about his past and future, a prey to doubts and misgivings from the day he begins to think coherently to the end. It never was and never can be a readily available talisman to bridge the yawning gulf between the seen and the unseen, between the physical and the superphysical for all and sundry who undertake it. On the other hand, the mental and physical constitution of the seeker and the diligence and purity of purpose with which he devotes himself to the effort are of paramount importance in determining the measure of success he achieves. It must be clearly understood that Yoga does not provide, as is sometimes supposed, a way of escape from the earthly part of our lives or a back-door entrance to the Divine for the evasion of religious obligations and spiritual responsibilities—speaking in universal, not parochial, terms—that devolve on man. Patanjali, in his Yoga-Sutras, introducing the doctrine for the first time as a distinct and methodical system of spiritual exercises and philosophy, defines Yoga as restraint of the fluctuations of mind-stuff. In other words, it means a condition of mental arrest in which the superphysical existence of consciousness, beyond the range of the senses and the mind, becomes perceptible to the initiate. According to Yoga-Sutras one of the attributes necessary in the aspirant is Astikta, or belief in God.
This belief is not to be taken in any restricted sense. In order to be qualified as an
“Astikta,” one may believe in an anthropomorphic God or a multitude of gods or a God without form, or a Transcendent Reality in the shape of Brahman or Shiva or Divinity in any conceivable mould, but he must believe in Vedas and in the spiritual destiny of man.
The followers of sankhya, which does not advocate a belief in God, but in the plurality of individual souls and prakriti, or matter, exploit Yoga for the verification of their own tenets. Similarly Buddhists use it for establishing the validity of their own conceptions that human existence is a series of in-carnations not of an individual soul, but of a combination of elements, until after righteous endeavour it terminates in nirvana or cessation from the cycle of births and deaths.
The monotheists, the dualists, and the pantheists in
look up to and use Yoga for the demonstration of their particular spiritual beliefs and dogmas. The Vedantists practice it to prove that the soul or Atman and Brahman are one and the phenomenal world is an illusion born of the action of maya, an unfathomable and inexplicable conditioning factor, which envelops the Atman in a veil of myth. The Saivites practice their own forms of Yoga to prove that the universe is the manifestation of shakti, the creative and active aspect of the Shiva-Shakti combination, the two-in-one attribute of Para Shiva, the lord of creation, who is both the creator and the created, by combining the conscious principle and the conscious creative energy in one. In fact, all sects, creeds, and faiths in India , and there are many of them, depend on Yoga for the demonstration of their truths and the verification of their varied and, sometimes, diametrically opposed beliefs. India
It is therefore obvious that Yoga has to be viewed from a broader angle than is sometimes used at present. Even in recent years the results attained through the practice of Yoga have been variously evaluated and described by the religious luminaries of
The Vedantists, the Buddhists, the worshipers of Shakti, or Shakts, the Vaisnavites and all the rest, who claim success in Yoga, describe their experience in terms of the doctrines and beliefs of their own creed. This means that the final state of Yoga, namely, the ultimate condition of mental arrest or Samādhi, is not always the same but varies with the individual and the faith he owns. From this it follows clearly that those who wish to take up the practice of Yoga, with a definite understanding that it would lead to such-and-such a condition, and those who foster this belief among the people not well versed in the history and the entire application of the system, are not treading on solid ground.
This misconception not only leads to wrong endeavour, disappointment, and frustration but also to a tremendous waste of human energy.
The only reasonable and safe attitude would be to treat Yoga as a systematized form of religious striving, needing lifelong attention and sacrifice, for a successful consummation, as has always been recognized; but what that consummation would be no one can be sure from the start. If the exercises and the disciplines enjoined are followed scrupulously one may expect a measure of success, provided the body and the mind are already in a certain state of maturity, but what form that success would take, what would be the nature of the ecstasy, what mental phenomena would be witnessed and what shape the vision would take, no one can predict. It is thus evident that the stereotyped goal of an unfluctuating and unmodified state of consciousness mentioned by Patanjali does not hold true for all.
In the Yoga-Sutras he postulates the existence of Iswara, not as the Almighty Creator of the Universe and the ultimate source and refuge of all that exists, but as a sort of superior overself that helps earnest seekers to gain moksa, or liberation, with the practice of Yoga.
This concept of the ultimate is at variance with the Brahman of Vedanta, the Shiva of
Saivite, and Vishnu of the Vaisnavite cults in
. Such a variation in the concept of the Transcendent Reality, depending on the pattern of the vision experienced in samadhi, provides an irrefutable testimony to the fact that the supersensory experience of even the highest adepts in Yoga in the past has not been identical, but unmistakably varied even in respect to the fundamental truths. India
The main problem, on which no light has been thrown by any writer, ancient or modern, is: How does the extraordinary condition of consciousness associated with Yoga and other forms of spiritual effort come about? How does the practitioner find himself wafted, in the state of trance or Samādhi to regions of omnipotence, transcending the narrow human limits, or to regions of deathlessness, glory, and incomparable bliss? Although the ecstasy of a modern mystic or Yogi denotes a tremendous leap forward from the self-induced trance of a Shaman, the experience of a state of power with vastly extended knowledge or of a direct contact with higher beings or higher states of consciousness, which is common to both, reveals an undeniable similarity in the basic characteristics of the two. In dealing with Yoga we are, therefore, faced by a historical problem, stretching across vast spans of time, that has its roots in the uncanny performances of the medicine-man and the witchdoctor in primitive societies and its branches in the varied experience of Western mystics, the Sufis of the Middle East, the Taoists of China, the Zen masters of Japan, the Yogis of India and Tibet in more recent historic times.